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The Congress' Surprise in Uttar Pradesh

The Congress' Surprise in Uttar Pradesh

The revival of Congress' fortunes in Uttar Pradesh has been surprising, if not entirely unexpected. This article looks at the nature of the Congress victories in the State and tries to identify the principal reasons thereof. The continued organisational weakness is also identified as a possible stumbling block for further growth.

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The Congress’ Surprise in Uttar Pradesh

Smita Gupta

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has won 21 seats in UP and all five in neighbouring Uttarakhand, twice as many as in 1989.

By comparison, the ruling Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which had set its sights on 45-plus seats – a number that would reflect its triumph of 2007, when it won a majority

The revival of Congress’ fortunes in Uttar Pradesh has been surprising, if not entirely unexpected. This article looks at the nature of the Congress victories in the State and tries to identify the principal reasons thereof. The continued organisational weakness is also identified as a possible stumbling block for further growth.

Smita Gupta (smita_g@hotmail.com) is political editor with the weekly news magazine, Outlook.

O
n 16 May, the day the results of the general elections to the 15th Lok Sabha came in, only one political party in Lucknow marked the occasion with a celebration – the Congress, at its sprawling state headquarters, Nehru Bhawan, on Mall Avenue. For this was the party’s best performance in two decades: in 1989, the Congress had won 13 of the 85 seats in undivided Uttar Pradesh, down from the unprecedented 83 in 1984. In subsequent elections, it went from five in 1991, to seven in 1996 (two of those seats were won by the breakaway Congress-Tiwari), to 0 in 1998. In 1999, it climbed up to 10, and stayed steady there in 2004 (that year, one of the 10 seats was won in the newly formed state of Uttarakhand). But in 2009, the party

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
may 30, 2009 vol xliv no 22

in the assembly elections – had to be content with just 20 seats. This was just one more than the 19 it won in the parliamentary elections of 2004, even though its current vote share of 27% in the state still puts it ahead of the competition. The Samajwadi Party (SP), which had hoped it would not lose too many of the 35 seats it held, slipped to 23. And the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) remained static at 10 even though its electoral partner in the state, the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), made a good showing, winning five seats.

Extent of the Revival

Curiously, 17 of the 21 seats the Congress has won are contiguous, stretching out i ndolently in all directions from the Gandhi citadel of Rae Bareli and Amethi – to its south, Pratapgarh; to its east, Sultanpur;

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to its west, Kanpur, Unnao and Akbarpur. Then, in an amazing northward sprawl, there is Faizabad, Gonda and Barabanki (which saw the fervour of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in the early 1990s) and then along the Indo-Nepal border, starting from the eastern periphery, moving westwards, Kushinagar, Maharajganj, Domariaganj, Shrawasti, Bahraich and Kheri – and on Kheri’s southern border, the new constituency of Dhaurhera. The other four are Farukkhabad, tucked inside Mulayam Singh Yadav territory; Bareilly, a BJP bastion in the heart of Rohilkhand, Moradabad in the western part of the state and Jhansi, a giant fist inside Madhya Pradesh to the extreme south.

Of the seats the Congress captured this time, only three are those it already held, Rae Bareli, Amethi – won by Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul Gandhi – and Kanpur, which former union Minister of State for Home Sriprakash Jaiswal retained. A fourth seat the Congress won in 2004, Shahjahanpur, was swallowed up by the delimitation process and is now a reserved constituency. But the incumbent, former union minister of state for steel Jitin Prasad, has won his new seat, Dhaurhera. The party lost Ghaziabad (earlier called Hapur), Varanasi and Bansgaon to the BJP, Mathura to the Rashtriya Lok Dal and Aligarh to the BSP. Ghaziabad has, of course, gone to BJP president Rajnath Singh, Varanasi to former union human resource development minister Murli Manohar Joshi and Mathura to RLD chief Ajit Singh’s son Jayant Chowdhury, the rising star of his party.

But take a look at the new seats. There are 11 constituencies the Congress has not won since 1984 – Moradabad, Bareilly, Unnao, Sultanpur, Akbarpur, Barabanki, Faizabad, Shrawasti (earlier known as Balrampur), Domariaganj, Maharajganj and Kushinagar. There are three seats the party has not won since 1989: they are Kheri, Bahraich and Gonda. If the party won Jhansi and Pratapgarh in 1999, Farukkhabad was last held by the Congress in 1991.

Additionally, the party has come second in another six constituencies – Fatehpur Sikri (where Congress candidate Raj Babbar lost by just 9,936 votes), Ghaziabad, Hamirpur, Pilibhit, Rampur and Salempur.

In 18 seats – apart from the 21 it has won – the Congress has polled more than a lakh votes: in Ghaziabad, it has secured more than two and a half lakh votes. Of the 67 seats the party contested, it has come fifth only in one seat – in 2004, that figure was six. It has polled less than 20,000 in only two constituencies; last time, it did so in 20-odd constituencies. In 2004, the Congress came fourth in nearly 45 constituencies – five years later, that number has shrunk to 26. Its vote percentage has climbed from about 12% in 2004 to 18% this time. (In the 2007 assembly elections, it was just 8.6%.)

How Strong a Revival?

Does all this point to a definite revival of the party? Well, the jury is still out on that, because the party’s long moribund organisation is still far from having been revitalised. Most of the Congress’ new seats have been won by candidates who are individually strong. Some are “family seats” which were held in the past by the current winners or by a parent. In Pratapgarh, it is Rajkumari Ratna Singh; in Farukkhabad, Salman Khurshid; in Kushinagar, R P N Singh; and in Faizabad, Nirmal Khatri. Ratna Singh’s father, Dinesh Singh, was a union minister in successive Congress governments at the centre; so was Khurshid’s father, Khurshid Alam Khan and R P N Singh’s father, C P N Singh. Of course, while Ratna Singh and Salman Khurshid have won their seats in the past, for R P N Singh, an MLA in the UP assembly, this is his first parliamentary victory. Khatri is the grandnephew of the respected socialist leader, Acharya Narendra Dev, and had won Faizabad before it was swept away in the Ayodhya frenzy.

Then there are party veterans, who had vanished in the Congress’ years of decline

– Sanjay Singh in Sultanpur, Jagdambika Pal in Domariaganj and Harsh Vardhan in Maharajganj, not to mention the “imported” heavyweight from the SP, Beni Prasad Verma, in Gonda. Then there are those who have been working for some years in their constituencies. Retired IAS officer P L Punia, who served as principal secretary to Chief Minister Mayawati in an earlier chief ministerial innings, won Barabanki. Annu Tandon, wife of a Reliance executive, who has been running a successful NGO in Unnao for several years, defeated her closest rival by over three lakh votes. Praveen Singh Aaron, a succesful lawyer, defeated five times BJP MP Santosh Gangwar in B areilly (he contested last time, too) where he had the added advantage this time of wife, Supriya, being the mayor of the city. The party had won Jhansi in 1999, so it was not that hard fashioning a win there.

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may 30, 2009 vol xliv no 22

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The surprises are few. Star power and glamorous actress wife Sangeeta Bijlani steered cricketer Mohammad Azharuddin to victory in Moradabad. Sheer luck saw long time Congress activists Zafar Ali Naqvi and Vinay Kumar Pande win Kheri and Shrawasti respectively, while former SPG commando Kamal Kishore (he was on former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s staff) swept Bahraich.

The Importance of NREGA

So what explains the party’s amazing recovery? In early April, when I was travelling through the state, one of the first stops I made was at Nehru Bhawan, the party headquarters in Lucknow. Nothing there suggested a dramatic change of fortune was imminent. The grounds are overgrown, the building a crumbling reminder of a glorious past, the rooms filled with dusty, dog-eared files, surplus posters from previous elections and aging oldtimers with fond memories – of even Sanjay Gandhi. Glasses of lemon tea are passed around and the air is heavy with nostalgia. By comparison, the local offices of the SP and BSP are very smart, and the BJP better organised.

But once I left Lucknow and hit the election trail, I noticed the difference immediately. For one, the party’s decision to contest the elections alone – and not in alliance with the SP – had galvanised party workers. But that was not all. The public mood was also in favour of the Congress. For instance, one question which I posed to everyone I met elicited virtually the same answer. And this cut across the u rban-rural divide, the caste barrier – barring the Jaatavs, who are Mayawati’s core constituents – and religious boundaries – except the Muslims in Azamgarh, who hold the Congress responsible for the Batla House encounter in which young men from the district were killed. I would ask, who do you want to rule this country? Pat would come the answer: the UPA and

– here was the surprise – Manmohan Singh as the prime minister. In some p laces, I was even told, “After Atal Behari Vajpayee, it is Manmohan Singh”, hinting at a cross-party support for the prime minister. Something had changed: of course, to say that this would mark the end of identity politics would be premature.

So what was the reason for this change? The first was that while regional (kshetriya) parties were all very well for the state, at the centre, the country needed a national party, which could provide a stable government. The second was that since the country was going through a difficult economic situation, it was best to have a qualified economist at the helm of affairs and at a time when India was engaging with the world, someone who could talk to world leaders on equal terms. The Muslims, like the Hindus, cited all these reasons but with them, there was a subtext: it was evident that they saw in Manmohan Singh – and indeed, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi – empathetic figures. Even Hindu upper caste lawyers at the Kanpur district court pointed out that while Rahul Gandhi naap toal ke bayan deta hain (makes measured statements) his cousin Varun Gandhi’s bharkau bhashan (inflammatory speeches) could only take him and the BJP a short distance. In a country as diverse as India, they said, the only long-term politics possible had to be consensual.

More specifically, many of them cited central government programmes: the winner was the farm loan waiver programme (with no scope for slippages) that had gone down like a treat, while the second on the list was the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme. Interestingly, they all appeared to know that these were gifts of the Congress-led central government, not of the state government. In the Fatehpur Lok Sabha constituency’s twin hamlets of Parmiqutabpur and Bamanpurba, villagers spoke enthusiastically of NREGA, while talking derisively of the state government’s half-hearted efforts at electrification. Sochte hain ki khambe dekh kar hame tasalli ho jayegi (The government thinks we will be happy just looking at the electric pole), villager Iqbal Ahmed said. They even bemoaned the fact that the Congress had not fielded a candidate (that was 2 April). By the time the party named Vibhakar Shastri it was too late, yet he polled a lakh plus votes. Underlying all this, among all those I spoke to – barring the dalits – was the sentiment that they did not wish to see Mayawati as prime minister. There was a strong sense that if she won as many as 45 seats, she could well be a contender for the top job, especially if the electoral mandate was a fractured one – and this was something they did not want.

Not Home Yet

But even as people – across the central and eastern swathe of UP where I travelled – spoke with great nostalgia about the Congress, it was not very clear to me how this would translate into seats. This is because, in every election through the 1990s and early 2000s, as the Ayodhya madness subsided and governments led by the SP, the BSP and BJP ruled the state, the longing for the Congress was very visible at election time. But each time I posed the question, would the Congress regain its past glory in the state this time, the answer would be: let the Congress rebuild its organisation and then we will return to it. The Muslims would say, let the brahmins go back to the party; the brahmins would say let the Muslims return first. The dalits were firmly with Mayawati; the Yadavs with Mulayam Singh Yadav. This time, however, the Muslims and the brahmins appear to have decided on a joint homecoming. This is not to say that these communities voted en bloc for the Congress – only that there was a shift in votes wherever the Congress candidate appeared winnable. The Muslims also voted in large numbers for the SP and the BSP; the brahmins for the BSP and the BJP as well.

Can the Congress’ approach, which has eschewed the identity politics route, see it growing in the assembly elections due in 2012? Can the fresh-faced appeal of Rahul Gandhi do the trick, especially among the youth? These are early days, but clearly even if the Congress continues to talk of inclusive politics, it must demonstrate that it is willing to put its money where its mouth is. If all the brahmins want is political power, so do the Muslims – but the last named also want a real follow-up to the Sachar report in the shape of jobs, education and health facilities. Visiting dalit homes – as Rahul Gandhi has done in wellpublicised trips – may create empathy, but to wrest dalit votes from Mayawati, there must be a greater degree of political inclusion in the Congress. And the party organisation must be rebuilt. Good intentions will simply not be enough.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
may 30, 2009 vol xliv no 22

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